Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I stood my ground

We are at this table yet again. Unintended invitees to a bitter soup served cold. The best kind of revenge they say. Of course I'm talking about the Jordan Davis murder trial. By now we know all the players and they know their lines. A white man with expressed racial bias comes across an unarmed black teenager and assumes him threatening. The white man demands fealty from the black teenager who bucks back. Heated words are exchanged and the toxic mix of lax gun laws, moronic bravado and good old American-style racism leaves the teenager dead. Then the outrage comes, the trial, the verdict and more outage after the verdict. On and on ad infinitum forever and ever amen.

Since last week a lot of people have discussed how anybody would be confused on finding Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis' murderer anything built guilty. How a white man who routinely uses racial slurs and stated he hated black people can put on a sweater vest and be transformed into Mr. Rogers; while all black men no matter what their station in life are Willie Horton. Gangsters. Thugs. Gang bangers. Violence an immutable trait coiled under our very surface. A russet dermis overlaying a truculent soul.  We are always dangerous. We are always the villain. The killer of Susan Smith's children, the shooter of the banker with the dead pregnant wife on the Charles River Bridge and just recently the man who shot himself then lied and told the police a black male attacked him. It's an all too easy excuse. I mean it has been proven that black men can weaponize anything. That we are all a hare's breath from the long arm of the law.

I had just returned from working in India for about four months. I returned to work that Friday afternoon. There were several new employees. I was introduced to them as their manager when the oddest thing happened. I was speaking with one of the new hires, a charming woman that reminded me greatly of Diane Wiest, when she saw the hint of my tattoo peeking from behind the sleeve of my polo shirt. She asked "Is that a tattoo?"

"Yes," I said.

"May I see it?" I pulled up my sleeve. She looked at it. "I used to volunteer at a youth center in Newark and I used to work with a lot of ex-gang members. All of their prison tattoos had meanings. Were you in a gang?"

"Do I look or sound like I've ever been in a gang?"

"Well I don't know. You are black. I think." she smiled at her own deduction. It took every fiber of my being to not break out singing "America!" from West Side Story complete with Jerome Robbins choreography. "I was a member of the Northside Quips," I snapped, "where blood and glitter ran in the streets after every rumble." She just stared at me for a moment, my shade lost upon the train wreck of her mind.

A few weeks later during our annual evaluation period she wrote in her review, in true conservative fashion, that God lead her to understand the job, and I assume ostensibly me, treated her like a slave and she was nobody's n-word. I fired her on the spot.

These kinds of interactions are what black parents are talking about when they give their children "The Talk."

The Talk is the conversation that some black parents have with their children, primarily boys as they reach puberty. Because once a black boy grows pubic hair he's no longer cherub-cheeked Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman) he's darkened by Photoshop OJ Simpson. For us as black men there's no transitional period. We don't get to use youthful exuberance as an excuse for reckless behavior. We don't have a nation rally behind us when we've been caught stealing street signs and sentenced to a public ass whoopin'. We get shot. Or arrested at staggering numbers. So our parents have to give us "The Talk." To make sure that we are aware that America does not afford us an even playing field. That in many cases the field is slanted to make it harder for us to even get on it. That when you go about your life that there are going to meet people fearful of you for no reason. That they may harm you. That you simply being alive proves a greater threat than influenza or their drunk husband. So be careful of furtive movements. Make sure your car's inspection and registration is current and up to date. Don't loiter in predominately white neighborhoods. Don't give the police a reason to arrest you or worse. Don't give that white lady walking her dog any reason to shout rape. Don't give that teacher any reason to send you to the principal for back-talk.

In full disclosure: I didn't get The Talk.

And you know what? I'm glad I didn't. From the time I was a small child my mother and father told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and go anywhere in this world that I wanted to. There was no limitations on my progress or my imagination. There was no talk of averting eyes. There was no mincing of words. When I got a grade of unsatisfactory in behavior in fifth grade it wasn't because I misbehaved. It was because I argued with my teacher who erroneously said the Civil War was fought over state's rights. I corrected her.  My parents told me to boldly step forward. They didn't teach me to be fearful or subservient. But to speak my mind and follow my heart. So when President Obama said that he could have been Trayvon I understand that he means it not in a literal sense. But in a sense that he would never run from a white man questioning him or his purpose in any neighborhood. I've been pulled over by police on my way home to my mother's house when I was just out of college. The white police officer asked me what I was doing in "this neighborhood" as if to imply the impossibility that I could actually live along a tree-lined street of stately homes. I didn't tell him I lived nearby. Why should I have to? Instead I told him that as a tax-payer I can drive my car anywhere I wanted in Winston-Salem. And if he had no other reason to stop me then he should let me go on about my business. We as black men are under constant surveillance. So our well meaning parents try to prepare us for life and safety. But as Tonyaa Weathersbee stated on The Root this week that keeping black children safe is making it okay for some whites to be racist.  

Let's put these recent murders into perspective. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were in a place that they had a legal right to be. They were not committing a crime. They had no duty to retreat when confronted by an attacker or angry motorist. They had the right to meet force with force. They had the right to use deadly force if they reasonably thought their life was in danger. They had the right to stand their ground. But in America it is unreasonable to think that an unarmed black man is the victim and not the aggressor.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Facebook hates me

Apparently Facebook thinks my life sucks. It told me so in a neat 1:02 video. For its tenth anniversary Facebook is allowing all its user the joy of watching their digital life over the last decade from the point they joined Facebook. I've seen several "Look Backs." All those smiling faces of friends and family. Trips and birthdays. It was like each pixel was filled with a tiny bit of e-love. As the oh-so-clever music rose to a crescendo I not only felt pangs of joy I was overcome at how full and enriched my Facebook friends lives are. So I eagerly did mine own. I clicked the play button. And for the next sixty-two seconds I was horrified. Here flashing before me were images of 30-year old college pictures, coworkers from jobs long gone, renovations to my mother's house and only one picture of me anywhere. Where were my friendly smiles. Where were my friends. Where were the pictures I posted from Cancun? Milan? Frankfurt? That New Year's eve party or that small dinner. Where was my joie de vivre? Facebook just told me in no uncertain terms that my life just straight up sucked.

Mediocrity is a hard thing to grasp for some of us. As a child I used to sit and dream about greatness. I had such plans. I wanted to be a movie director. From the time I could remember that's what I wanted to do. Make movies. Everything was a film to me. Everything was fantasy. When I was six-years-old my GI Joes and Planet of the Apes action figures (never dolls) were trapped in the board game Candyland where villainous giant Lollipops blew up the Peanut-Brittle Bridge and chased them into the Molasses Swamp. At eight I wrote a short story in Mrs. Thompson's third grade class about an existential dinosaur who sought out the truth of why his kind died off only to find an alien plot against the earth. When I was twelve I had a notebook where I wrote down all the plots of the movies I had created. I made up casts, crew. I made up filming locations. I had an old basketball timer-clock that I nicked from my cousins. I would start it and would repeat my movies aloud in their entirety only stopping the clock to note the running time. My longest faux-film you ask? Was a movie entitled "Masquerade." It was about a woman whose husband left her for some one younger and the emotionally journey she took as she became a movie-star while fighting fame, depression and addiction to drugs and sex. Think of a cross between Valley of the Dolls and Looking for Mr Goodbar. The woman, Betty Ross, committed suicide/ or OD'd in the final scene. I could never decide which so left it ambiguous. That film clocked in at 167 minutes (2:47 to you laymen.) The make-believe actress who played that role won an Emerald Award. It was my version of the Oscars. You see each year I would give out awards for the films that I made the previous year. Since the Oscar statue wad gold I figured my should be a precious stone. So the Emerald Awards were born. For years I kept a list of what film won what for Best Picture and Best Director. I had opening dates and even box office receipt numbers. My two highest grossing movies? "The Owl"--the story of a woman cursed by an avian cult causing her to slowly turn into a monstrous bird and  "Arcade"--the story of a young girl's encounter with aliens that gave her the power to heal the sick by killing the wicked. They both grossed over $1 billion. What can I say I was ambitious in 1978.

Either stupidity or fear got the best of me because I never went to film school. After college I moved to New York City. Now don't get me wrong. I am not being mawkish. I loved--love my life. I have great friends, great family and have had many adventures that will actually make you scratch your head in disbelief. I've visited and lived in other countries. I was on one of the last flights out of Hong Kong the day before it was turned over to the communist. I've seen James Bond Island. Had clairvoyant dreams while living in India. Done drugs with celebrities and done other things with porn stars. Sometimes at the same party. I've met millionaires and homeless and treated them all the same. Worked in the most disparate places imaginable; from operations manager at the Bronx Zoo, to software trainer at a program dedicated to helping women escape domestic violence to being the manager of a graphic presentation group at the world's most prestigious investment bank. Along the way I've been a dishwasher, custodian, clown and we just won't talk about what I got paid to do in the sumer of 1989.  Right now if I threw a party I would have white-bread conservatives eating chicken roulade cheek-by-jowl with transmen anad transwomen. People have used the words "You did that?" around me. But according to Facebook the zenith of my life is a French Door stainless steel refrigerator.

Life is finite. So we have to squeeze as much into it as possible. It's like a banquet you see, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But over the last six years life has afforded me fewer and fewer opportunities it would seem almost on purpose. I've gone from the abundance of Auntie Mame to the decrease of Mrs. Havisham. Not only have these opportunities seemingly dried up but things have come undone. As if their was a hand at work in this mess. Dismantling the different parts of my life. First I had severe financial problems, then my mother developed dementia, then I health problems, then I had bed bugs, then I had to move to North Carolina, then I had to work from home to take care of my mother, then that job was gone, then unemployment was gone. Leaving me broke and humbled. It was a systematic reduction; a cascading system failure; a complete collapse of the layers of my life. One pancaking down onto the next. I felt beset upon like Ramesses. I would lay at night looking out my bedroom window waiting for the creeping mist and the wail of lost children as the hand of God moved through the Nile delta taking the first born of the Egyptians. I beseeched God to at least give me a clue as to why I was being punished so.

Its bad enough that I often feel that life has left me with so little but now Facebook is reinforcing that emotion with a stupid video that illustrates just how far I've fallen. Well all I have to say is fuck you Facebook. I will not allow you to reduce the beauty and joy or even the inelegance of my life to a neat little package of silly little images. I am more than that. How dare you try to make me so small. The volume of my life is vast. I am not some cyber-plaything you can analyze and algorithm then spew out in the form of a hokey video downloadable in multi-device formats. You're a ruse. A falsehood. A canard. I am a real person. With fragile hopes and impossible dreams; of unimaginable sorrow of watching a parent slowly decay, of struggling to find the dignity in that work, of struggling to pay bills and live in a country that prizes excess while I subsist on so little. A person of simple pleasures of walking my dog or listening to my mother play songs on her Steinway piano or Hammond organ plucked from her demolished memory. Of those three hour conversations with friends left behind in New York where the shade is thick and now all we have are reminiscence because I am here and they are there. But none of that was in your stupid little video was it Facebook? It's a difficult place to be in isn't it? And you now that don't you. Needing that human contact even if its on a virtual level; but I won't allow you to tell me that my life is nothing more than a selfie that was liked 157 times. I may not quit you Facebook but I will disengage more frequently from you. Because the more I log-on the more I log-out of my life. So no Facebook I am not going to Look Back. Look back over the life you've fashioned for me. You don't get to choose the soundtrack of my soul or the emotions I should be feeling. You hold us back with your pretty pictures and choruses of like-minded people. You make inaction and inactivity palatable as long as one reads that Al Jazeera story of inequity or likes that video of the laughing baby. A facsimile of human interaction. You meter out your judgment in the form of a condescending short sentimental video. But you know what Facebook? You can keep your shoddy simulacrum of whatever it is you think you've created about me.  I may not be an emperor but I'm not a tatterdemalion either. I'm going to look forward. Not back but forward and move forward with my life. And guess what? There's going to be a lot less of you in it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

12 historical and fictional characters you didn't know were white

Megyn Kelly stirred up a whirlwind this week when she revealed that Santa Claus was white. This was in response to a story from Slate magazine's Aisha Harris, who stated that maybe it was time to retire the race-specific St. Nick with a race-neutral penguin. But Ms. Kelly spoke up for the truth. She knew, without a doubt, that this fictional character was white. She said:

For all you kids watching at home, Santa's just is white. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we're just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.

And to drive her point home that we have things twisted she added that Jesus was white too. Right-wingers and Tea Baggers applauded her because for years liberals have done nothing but declare a war on Christmas (which ostensibly means a war on white people).  But as Megyn said, "it's about the children."  So to help her out and to help all those kids who may have the race of some of pop culture's and history's most well-known figures wrong, I've compiled a list to help the children get it right:

#1. Miss Piggy is white.

And not because she has blond hair and blue eyes (I mean, so does L'il Kim). It's because she dresses well. White women are the height of fashion. And nobody has relentlessly chased a man from another race (or another species) like Miss Piggy and Kim Kardashian, who is also white if you needed to know. 

#2. Ronald McDonald is white.

They do call the fast food industry modern day slavery. Yeah, I said it.

#3. Chewbacca is white.

He only hangs around with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and he has nothing good to say about Lando Calrissian. It's just a mere coincidence that he doesn't like the only black man in the Star Wars universe. And don't given me that Mace Windu crap. If Samuel Jackson was such a badass do you really think Senator Palpatine could have shot him out a window with a lightning bolt? And have you ever seen a black dude do the Chewbacca screech. Really?

#4. The Easter Bunny is white.

This makes perfect sense. If Jesus was white and Jesus died at Easter, Easter is therefore white; so it should follow that the bunny that represents it is white as well, because nothing says Jesus died for your sins like handing out painted eggs.  

#5. Simba is white.

There's no whiter actor than Matthew Broderick. I mean black people didn't even exist in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  It was set in Chicago and no Florida Evans was in sight. Believe me, Simba was white. Another way you can tell he was white was that he didn't split verbs. Now the hyenas? They were black.

#6. Adam & Eve were white.

Yes they were. It doesn't matter if something pesky like science has found that the mother of all humanity came from a black woman in Sub-Saharan east Africa. Nothing tells the truth like a Renaissance painting. Frescos trump research every time. 

#7. Mr. Yunioshi was white.

That's right kids. Holly Golightly's neighbor from Breakfast at Tiffany's was white. See, white people are the clearest and cleanest palette from which to build racial stereotypes. Just throw on some thick glasses, buck teeth, squint a bit and you have a Japanese guy. Pronounce all words with an L in them like Rs and the package is complete. Besides, in 1961 there were no Asian actors. Don't let them lie to you.

#8. Ramesses the Great was white.

If Cecile B. DeMille says the greatest ruler of Egypt was white it's good enough for me. You say he was descended from Nubians from what is now present-day Sudan?  All of his statues depict him having a broad nose and full lips. Eh, Nubians Schmubians. You think they would let a Nubian kiss Anne Baxter? I mean come on. Really?

#9. Superman is white.

And not only is he white, he's American which is the freaking most awesome thing you can just about be! He shows us that a man from another planet---hell, even another species---can come to America and be the greatest symbol of immigration. Now, if he were from the planet Mexicon instead of Krypton, that "S" on his chest would stand for Self-Deportation Man.

#10. The Miser Brothers are white.

Two unwed adult brothers fighting for mommy's affection? Sounds like the basis for a Eugene O'Neil or Tennessee Williams play to me which makes them white, sexually repressed and probably gay. I knew it. Those young houseboys running around like they do?  Hmmm...

#11. The shark from Jaws is white.

If that shark was black it would have just been happy getting the white girl in the beginning of the film and then living out its life on basketball  before retiring to endorsement deals. But since it came back, it had to be white. It's a shark, so the logic doesn't have to make sense here.

#12. The Cosbys were white.

Finally, after all these years the truth can finally be revealed. A black family whose father is a doctor and  a mother who's a lawyer. Respectful well-mannered children with pronounceable names who all went to college. Claire isn't fighting another black woman pool side? Vanessa and Denise aren't getting pregnant? Theo ain't selling weed?  Rudi's not using the word "bitch" as if its punctuation?  Cliff sticking around to raise his children?!  Now that's impossible. Just ask Bill O'Reily and Don Lemon---they seem to know everything about the black family.

And here's a bonus just for good measure:

Mickey Mouse is white.

Why do I think he's white? Have you seen him dance? I haven't seen skinny legs move this uncoordinatedly since Miley Cyrus on the VMAs.

Well kids, I hope this helps you out. Going forward, Megyn and I don't want you to be confused. We don't want you falling into that silly inclusive "everybody-should-feel-represented" trap because it's very important that fictional characters be identified by race.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

24 hours a slave

My grandfather was a lifelong Republican. He, like so many black men of his generation felt an obligation---almost a beholding---to the Grand Old Party for their part in freeing the men, women and children of African descent that had been enslaved in the United States for 245 years.  Island Lemuel Johns was born on February 2, 1882---not even 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and within a stone's throw of bondage.  His father, Washington Johns, was born into slavery in 1851. My grandfather, Island Lemuel, was extraordinary.  In just one small generation he leaped from abject poverty to being one of the first African American physicians in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  He opened his practice in a small downtown office on the corner of Patterson Avenue and 4th Street---an office he maintained until his death in 1970.  He had a great passion for medicine.

We had just celebrated Christmas in our new house. I was only five-years-old and the most vivid thing I remember from that day was a cold snowfall.  By this time in his long career, my grandfather had no real patients; just a collection of long-time supportive friends who would come and sit with him during the week and give him a five-dollar check on their way out.  Still, he would never miss a day of work.  So that Friday morning, the day after Christmas, he coerced my father into driving him into the office. The car ran into a ditch near the bottom of our driveway. My grandfather, at age 88, jumped out and tried to pry the car out of the snow. He broke his hip in the process and after living for only five weeks in the dream house he had just built for his daughter, my mother, he spent the last month of his life in hospital with an infection.

My grandfather was a beat-the-odds kind of man.  Upon leaving the rural town of Auburn, North Carolina, he walked the eight miles to Raleigh were he worked himself through Shaw University, and then later graduating with an M.D. degree in 1908.  So it follows that I have great personal admiration for black doctors---Charles Drew, Daniel Hale Williams, Sara Winifred Brown, Augustus White, Jose English Wells, Vivien Thomas (surgical technician.)  All great men and women. Pioneers. Strong role models.  Books and movies have been written and produced telling their life stories.  My grandfather would have been proud of them all.  Except perhaps one...

Dr. Ben Carson.

And it is not for the reasons you might think. My grandfather was a conservative and he believed in hard work. He was an entrepreneur as well as a doctor.  He and my grandmother owned houses and apartment buildings as rental properties. They owned and operated a florist. My grandmother owned a beauty salon.  If you were black you wore many hats back in the day.  He was a Christian and celebrated strong family values and higher education. He voted for Eisenhower (twice) and Nixon (once).  He would never be on the public dole for any reason. Never. He and Dr. Carson would have shared many values. Even the more controversial ones I'm afraid to admit.  But where he would disagree with Dr. Carson is the notion that President Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, bears any resemblance to---of all things---slavery.

As of late, Republicans and conservatives seem to have appropriated the language of oppression:  quoting dead civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and showing their disdain with the President and his health care law by comparing its effect to slavery. I can't begin to tell you of the disgust I feel listening to these preening, sanctimonious, Pecksniffian ass-hats like Sean Hannity, Rafael "Ted" Cruz, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann and Bill O'Reilly. Rich, white, well-connected politicians and opinionates, who were born into status or achieved it early; who grow crapulent engorging themselves on the fears and prejudices of the ill-informed masses. From this right wing klatch I would expect nothing less that mounds of total bullshit.  But when Dr. Carson recently muttered to a room of frothing Tea Baggers that the A.C.A. was "the worst thing since slavery" I couldn't take any more.

Dr. Carson, you dishonor my ancestors by discounting the horrors of slavery. You have been afforded things that slaves would not even dream of having access to:  education, money, power and success.  To even make such a comparison, you have disregarded the millions of people who were born and died in bondage, never getting the opportunities you or I were afforded.  My grandfather, who was the son of a slave, would be appalled that a colleague of his would make such a cavalier and diminishing statement. So, once again, I find myself in the role of teacher (I had to school former congressman Joe "You lie!" Walsh here).  For Dr. Carson and all of his soon to be coworkers at the FOX News channel, I will try to explain the difference between slavery and Obamacare.

Being a slave you had no rights. No rights to wages for the hours you work. No rights to food. No rights to property. No rights to health care. No rights to make decisions about your own body. No rights to travel about the country without permission. No rights to marry whom you love. No vacation, sick or paid time off. No dental or vision plans. You were not allowed to gather in groups larger than three. You were property. Cattle. A commodity. You worked six days a week. Most Sundays you didn't work unless it was harvest time and then you'd work a half-day. You lived in a cabin and slept on a dirt floor. There was no heat, no running water, no toilets, showers or bathtubs. You may have a change of clothes, if you were lucky. You couldn't read and you couldn't write and you'd be beaten severely if you tried to learn either. You had a name but you were mostly just called "nigger" or "boy" by the overseer and Master.

So imagine Mr. Cruz waking before sunrise. You are given a bowl of grits.  (Eat well because its harvest time and you have an 18-hour day ahead of you.) You and Dr. Carson and the other men are led by the overseers under threat of the lash into the fields. If you lived in North Carolina you picked tobacco. You would start between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. The sun would soon rise and the heat and humidity would set in. Three hours into your labor, your back is hurting, your hands are cramping, but at least they're not bleeding; they've grown tough as leather over the summer. You're sweating profusely but you dare not wipe the sting from your eyes because it will slow you down and that's bad.  You're told to work as quickly as possible. If you don't meet your quota you won't eat, or, depending on your overseer's mood you may be beaten. It's now 10:00 a.m. You get a break where you are allowed to eat dried cornbread. After a few minutes of conversation you must go back to work. Don't slow down because you will be punished if you do. You can remember a few weeks ago when you fell sick and you had to throw up and you asked the overseer for leniency. He gave you 20 lashes in response. You were sent back into the fields and you knew you'd better vomit in your shirt so it wouldn't get on the tobacco.

At about 1:00 you are allowed to return to your cabin to eat with your family. But you sit and eat salt pork alone because you wife and children have been sold to the family down the road. You have only seen them once since they left several months ago. Only because Master gave you permission. A slave cannot leave his master's property without written permission. If he does he could be maimed or killed. You hear the bell and it's back out into the fields for another six-and-a-half straight hours of picking. Eventually, 8:00 p.m. arrives and the overseer allows you to stop working.  He's not happy with the day's yield so he cuts your food rations in half. You're not too upset because you have a few tomato plants that you have grown in your little patch beside your cabin. You smile as you think about how your wife loved tomatoes. You are told to stay behind to help finish baling the tobacco. Your arms spasm almost immediately struggling with the hundred pound bales. Others have tied them together and because you are young and strong you are forced to carry them. Your body aches and you see the pain and anger in the eyes of the other men working along side you. In their eyes you see thoughts of escape and though you have never run you wish them luck, but you know that most slaves are captured and punished severely for the attempt.  After two more hours everything is tied up and taken to the drying houses. You pick up your paltry rations consisting of a piece of salt pork and  dried cornbread. You return to your quarters and help the family in the cabin next to yours tend to their meager little garden. By this time it's 11:30 at night so you go and lay on the dirt floor of your cabin. You think about your family. Tomorrow is Sunday. Maybe, just maybe, Master will let you go to see your wife and children.  You finally fall asleep about 1:00 a.m. and you dream of that 4:00 a.m. bell and wonder what freedom feels like.

So Dr. Carson as you live your patrician life, walk into your well-appointed home, sleep on soft high-count sheets, bathe in bathrooms with marble countertops, drive your luxury vehicles, glad-hand with fellow Ivy alumni, fly first class to wonderful and exotic locations, speak at big-dollar campaign rallies and cash that fat check from Roger Ailes, remember and thank God that you live in a time where you could lend your voice to causes your hold dear. The Affordable Care Act will take none of that from you. My grandfather taught me to never speak in hyperbole.  So comparing health care reform to slavery is not only reprehensible--its irresponsible. And irresponsible is something my grandfather said doctors should never be.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

There once was a white woman in Thailand

It was the winter of 1999, and my partner and I had taken a 3-week vacation to Southeast Asia, our first of many trips to the region. We had just spent a week in Hong Kong visiting friends before flying to Bangkok, Thailand. The city was so exotic. An intoxicating and toxic mix of people, pollution, industry, commerce, culture, cuisine and the sex trade. We were walking down Surawong Road near Patpong, the notorious market made famous during the Vietnam War as Thailand's throbbing, degenerate heart of the sex industry---a place where you can buy a knock-off Gucci watch (which I did) as easily as you can traffic a human for intercourse (that's for the memoirs darling).  The weather was hot.  Now I love hot. But Thai hot is hot as hell. Literally, it felt like hell. I never understood how the Thai people remained so aloof from their weather, walking around as they did all crisp and pulled together despite the staggering heat and humidity.

Thailand is a languid country so we walked at our leisure.  Down the street a ways I saw a white couple walking toward us. When you travel to countries where you're a racial minority other non-locals stick out and I assumed they were tourists like us. As we approached each other the woman looked up and spied my partner and me. There was an imperceptible tensing in her neck and her bright smiled hesitated. Her lips curled downward slightly. She quickly moved her handbag from her left hand (the hand closest to us) and moved it to her right shoulder while grabbing her husband's hand tightly. As a black man living in the U.S., I've experienced this on numerous occasions; white women gripping their bags more tightly as I approached, or crossing the street, or locking the car door (before automatic locks kept them safe), or holding their breath in elevators when it's just me and them. It's just another one of those tiny indignities you learn to ignore as an African-American male. But somehow, here, thousands of miles from home immersed in another people's culture, I was still perceived as a threat. A criminal.  As she passed us I blurted out over my left shoulder "Bitch, I did not fly six thousand miles to snatch your purse." Her face blanched. She was robbed of what color she had. Her husband turned back toward us with confusion and, in an instant, I was that black man. You know, the angry-for-no-reason black man.  Even here, on the opposite side of the globe from America, I was cast in the part racism had written for me over the last four centuries. But in that moment I didn't care. They quickly retreated and a few minutes later I was enjoying a Singha beer at a bar on Soi Cowboy.

Fourteen years later, I had another moment not unlike that one in Thailand.  Last week was the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington---the only march that ever truly mattered to me and the march that changed the world. I was born after The March. I was too young to remember water hoses and viciously trained German Shepherds. I never sat at the back of a bus. I never went to a segregated school. I didn't cry when Dr. Martin Luther King died because I was barely three years old.  I was the first generation to reap the benefits of the work he, Medgar, Dorothy, Martin, Viola, Fannie Lou, Malcolm and others did. I never saw a sign that read "Colored Only." I had white teachers and I had white classmates and white friends. We went to Hanes Mall where we shopped together at The Merry-Go-Round and Thalheimers Department Store. We were supposed to be the generation that received a payout after that bounced check Dr. King famously spoke about was re-deposited. But somehow, as always, human beings get in the way of lofty Aquarian ideals.

This was a tough summer. The conservative Supreme Court of the United States finally fulfilled Judges Roberts' and Thomas' promise to nullify anything that looked like racial justice by dismantling a major part of the Voting Rights Act and further diluting Affirmative Action. Then, my home state of North Carolina enacted the most severe restrictions to access to voting in the last five decades, all under the guise of stopping "voter fraud" that Republican leaders described, oxymoronically, as "both rampant and undetected."  They claimed these restrictions had no sinister intent, but merely contained a law to make you show ID at the polls. That's all.  What they didn't announce was the law planned major cuts to early voting, closing polling stations in left-leaning colleges (a direct assault on the legality of young voters at historically black colleges and other institutions), banning publicly funded voter registration drives, banning same-day registration, and---my personal favorite---allowing for unlimited amounts of monetary contributions to state politicians from anonymous corporate donors. So, essentially, huge businesses like Walmart or the Koch Brothers or Art Pope's Super P.A.C. could secretly donate millions of dollars to politicians willing to work on their behalf without the voters of the Tarheel State having any rights whatsoever to that information.

And then there was the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. 'Nuff said.

It seemed the exoneration of a grinning George Zimmerman, Jr., who was on trial after he murdered an unarmed teenager, gave the right-wing the green light it needed to commence a blitzkrieg on everything black and male in America.  From Bill O'Reilly's Talking Points, where he laments that the plight of black America is due to deadbeat dads and Lil' Wayne lyrics, to Rush Limbaugh's go-to checklist of black-on-black crime, Al Sharpton and the ever-present Black Welfare Queen. They kept trying to stoke racial animus with their "versions" of Trayvon. White conservatives, swollen with self-rightenousness, bombarded FOX News and Briebart with what they thought was the Gretchenfrage of the moment:  What's Wrong with the Black Community? Tim Wise and Tom Scocca, two white men who are allies in the fight against racism had their say. But it was Joe Walsh's racially charged and detestable bastardization of the I Have a Dream speech that was my personal white-woman-in-Thailand moment.  This ousted Tea-Bagging jackass had the nerve to spew racist fuckery in what he, and the rest of what has become a thinly veiled cabal of right-wing bigots, think was a clever parody of Dr. King's words. So listen up assholes 'cause I'm only gonna say this once:

My parents chose the schools I went to because I lived in a good neighborhood.
I grew up with my father in a loving household.
I have never shot another black man.
I said "no" to gangs and drugs.
I graduated from high school.
I am not a father and if I were it would not be any of your business (didn't your wife accuse you of being behind on your child support in the tune of $117,00?).
My family has never been dependent on the government assistance.
And I am not alone in this. Millions of other black men are just like me.

Now that you have this information, I would like to ask white conservatives like Joe Walsh a few questions of my own: You love to quote Dr. King and claim you judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Then, why am I constantly followed in stores?--I don't steal and there's no need for me to shoplift.  Why was I pulled over by the police and asked what I was doing "riding around" in my own neighborhood?--I grew up here and have been living here more or less for more than 45 years.  Why did the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board try to track me into remedial classes (twice) even though I tested in the 95th percentile on most of the state's standardized aptitude tests? Why was I asked to submit to a drug test when I worked at Credit Suisse when the two white male applicants that were hired to work under my supervision were not? Why did that well-meaning white man I met at the bar while out drinking with friends try to give me that ridiculous, stereotypical jive handshake? As if he'd just watched a rerun of Sanford and Son. Why do you always tell me I'm so "well-spoken" as if that's a surprise? Why was I asked if I worked in the mailroom when I was coming out of that meeting in the conference room wearing a $700 Hugo Boss suit? Why did you call me a bum when i saw you drop a five dollar bill when you were exiting the subway and I was just trying to hand it back to you? Why was I directed to unskilled labor jobs when I went to the Winston-Salem's employment services agency after I finished college? (The counselor, and yes she she was white, didn't even bother to look at my resume at first).  And why do white women automatically hide their cellphones, iPads and necklaces (often attempting to be discreet, but failing) when they see me walking toward them?

So why, Joe Walsh, if I've done everything I was supposed to do am I STILL being treated like a criminal? I'll tell you why:  because you live in a world of fear and vitriol. A world filled with deflection. A world where your anger is vindicated not by your own shortcomings but by the idea that you are better than me. You don't want to help poor, black, indigent, underemployed, institutionalized black men. You want to use them as chips in your high stakes game of racial poker.  So you pour your hate on Trayvon Martin and others like him because the black president of the United States said he could have been Trayvon 35 years ago.  But what you're really fearful of is that Trayvon Martin could grow up and be president 35 years from now.  So the real reason you continue to criminalize me is because a forward-thinking, hard-working, smart, politically and socially aware black man is not your greatest dream but your worst nightmare.

Friday, July 19, 2013

North Carolina to pass law prohibiting youngsters from carrying candy without a permit

Raleigh, NC

The Republican controlled General Assembly is poised on passing an unprecedented law. In the second-degree murder trial of the slain teenager, Trayvon Martin, defendant George Zimmerman was found “Not Guilty.” After the facts of that tragic night were revealed in the courtroom, North Carolina is prepared to be the first state to make it a law that you must have a permit to carry packaged candy in your pockets if you're younger than twenty-seven.

Attorneys Mark O'Mara and Don West, defense lawyers for George Zimmerman, proved in open court that a bag of Skittles can become weaponized in the hands of a teenager. The proposed law is not without controversy.  State Representative Simon Le Bon (R-Tobaccoville)--no relation to the lead singer of the 80s band Duran Duran--who introduced the bill assured the public that this was the right thing to do. "I've seen this time and time again. These packaged candies get in the hands of the wrong people and innocent people are murdered. How many will be killed by the rainbow before we do something?" he said in a passionate plea on the legislature floor.

Unlike the Stand Your Ground law that passed in NC in 2011 by a party line vote, the Hide Your Candy law has divided the Tarheel GOP. Christopher Hewitt--no relation to the actor who played Mr. Belvedere in the 80s hit sitcom--V.P. of marketing for the powerful N.C.A (National Candy Association) said in a tersely written email to its members that making people have to get permits to carry candy in their pockets is a slippery slope. "Liberals along with that uncircumcised Hittite Obama want to take our candies away from us. This is unprecedented. What's next? Nabs?...or God forbid they try to stop us from buying multi-candy-packs!" This caused an uproar in the candy carrying community. Many called their state representatives telling them they were law-abiding candy owners. But others in the conservative movement think this is a great way of curtailing crime. Ultraconservatives Alex Jones and Larry Elder both agree that keeping candy out of the hands of "young black thugs" (a euphemistic term coined on the right) is paramount to keeping America safe. Mr. Jones reported on his website that thousands of young black men were stockpiling packaged candies. A commenter affirmed that he could not find a Now And Later anywhere in Duvall County, Florida. Mr. Elder on his daily radio show said that he knew for a fact that the New Black Panther party was giving out free candies to new recruits.

Rachel Jeantel, who is now the official spokesperson for the New Black Panther Party responded to the questions of the free candy giveaway with the short statement "That's real retarded, SIR." Mr. Elder's accusations have angered many civil rights leaders who said this legislation smacks of racial profiling. But Republicans fired back that its not racial profiling siting the high profile case of Belinda Carlisle--no relation to the lead singer of the 80s girl group The Go-Go’s--who reported being terrorized in her Alamance County home by a black youth. "I was so scared. I could see a pack of Starburst peaking out his pocket. I literally feared for my life."

The Zimmerman defense team put Dr. Anthony Michael Hall--no relation to the actor from the 80s movie The Breakfast Club--on the stand where he proved empirically that black men have an extra set of suppressed DNA that causes them to be able to turn innocuous objects into weapons. Under oath Dr. Hall said that he has seen in experiments he's conducted "Black men viscously injure each other with bags of Paz Easter bunny marshmallows." When asked how the doctor came to these conclusions, he explained that he would randomly kidnap young black men, lock them in cages for several weeks or sometimes years, without food, water or human contact, then at gun point make them fight each other by using any snack food necessary. "They quickly turn violent with just the slightest bit of provocation," he said.

The state is divided on the Hide Your Candy law. But most people are just fearful like Appavoo Parumel--no relation to my college math professor--who works as a cashier at the 7-11 near the Lewisville exit on Highway 52 in Clemmons. He said he's seen a lot of young men buying candy and putting them in their pockets. "They come in here and buy a lot of candies. Mostly M & M Peanuts. That's the scariest to me. They have peanuts on the inside."

African American parents also expressed a higher level of concern for their children, especially boys. Vernice Ledbetter--no relation to my Sunday School teacher--expressed emotionally, after church at the Greater New Jerusalem A.M.E.C.O.P.D. Zion Church of Christ in Christ in Hendersonville on Sunday where they held a prayer vigil, that every time she sends her teenaged son out to the store she's afraid he may not come back. "I tell him. If he's going to buy candy walk slowly and always, always keep the candy out in the open where people can see it. Expect to be followed. I would hate to get a call that my son is dead because somebody felt threatened because he was walking around with candy in his pocket."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The 68 Percent Solution

The turning of the year always makes you think. It does to all of us. As the Swarovski crystal ball descends and the Veuve Cliquot filled flutes raises to our lips we all become a bit introspective. Just a bit reflective. That small moment just after yelling Happy New Year and the kiss and the champagne. That small tiny moment when you look back into your own eyes and wonder what will unfold for you this year. And how your life may be if this happens or that won't happen. You begin to think about what is the meaning of your experiences. Just for that moment. Then it is gone. Fleeting and reductive. A slow-motion tilt toward melancholy then the shouts and confetti return.

I am turning 48 at the end of this month. Shocking isn't it? Well it is to me sometimes. I will fully admit this event has made me a bit mawkish so to cheer myself up I sought out the latest statistics on life expectancy. Definitely wasn't a pick-me-up. The lifespan of an average African American male has actually increased over the years. We still lag behind every other gender and ethnic group. We still suffer more diseases and die earlier than just about everybody in the US but a black male can expect to live 70.2 years.

That's 842.4 months.
That's 25,623 Days
That's 614,952 hours
That's 36,897,120 minutes
That's 2,213,827,200 seconds.

Sounds like that song from Rent. But to me the most important number is 68%. And numbers matter. The number 68 percent represents the amount of time I've lived out of my allotted 70.2 years. Now as morbid as this may seem I am not going to reseed into obscurity; well not any further than I am now. I think this is a great opportunity to reenergize and refocus my life. I remember the funeral scene in the movie Death Becomes Her when the Bruce Willis character is eulogized. The minister talks about how he lived a rich and full life starting at age 50. But is this true? Famously F. Scott Fitzgerald said "There are no second acts in American lives."That sounds a little too final for me so I did what every good scion of the generation that gave the world the term cyberspace would do, I googled "late bloomers."

It takes time to percolate genius I tell people. And hopefully I've perked enough. The fire has been on to varying degrees for all my life, but never hot enough to bring my creativity to a boil. There have always been tepid forays into something special but like a fragile soap bubble it burst right before my eyes. The plays I was in during college, the sketch comedy group, the novels, the false starts. Always poised on the verge of greatness but the summit just slightly above my head, shrouded in clouds. Outside of my reach.

Wikipedia states a late bloomer is a person whose talents or capabilities are not visible to others until later than usual. The term is used metaphorically to describe a child or adolescent who develops more slowly than others in their age group, but eventually catches up and in some cases overtakes their peers, or an adult whose talent or genius in a particular field only appears later in life than is normal – in some cases only in old age.

So I sit on the first day of 2013 and wonder; Am I that late bloomer? I sure hope so. I think for all the Oprah Winfreys and Mark Zuckerburgs, who have a laser focus or just really good luck there are the Chris Langans of the world. A man whose IQ eclipses Alfred Einstein but because of life's little idiosyncrasies most of us have no idea who he is. Despite coming from a broken home and an abusive step-father he managed a perfect score on his SATs even though he fell asleep and took a nap in the middle of the test. But instead of finishing college he dropped out. And over the next 30 years he worked at everything from a ranch-hand to a forest service firefighter to his longest lasting profession: a bouncer. Not until 1999 right before he turned 48 did his true genius became publicly known.  After an article in Esquire was published Mr. Langan's Cognitive Theoretical Model of the Universe (CTMU) became know as the "Theory of Everything". His work is said to rival Stephen Hawking or John Archibald Wheeler. He was the subject of Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers which I discussed here. Because he never finished college he had no academic cred. So therefore people who laud you as a genius never knew or respected him because he never published a paper and never worked within the confines of an academic setting. He wasn't allowed to build his genius upward. Life just kinda got in the way.

How can I spend the remaining 32% of my life and somehow find a way out of the bureaucratic mess that it has become? I read a blog about the 9 worst things about turning 50. The blog really didn't make me feel better. I know it may be that time but I'm just not ready to have that end-of-life conversation with my family and friends. Maybe I'll do that around the 85% mark. So how do I change my future? Do I look for wealthy benefactors? Do I throw caution and bills to the wind and "just do it!"? Being the sole caregiver of my mother who has dementia those options aren't really options at all. Sometimes I feel even more constrained than ever. Conscripted to a post I was unprepared for and to be honest not very willing to do. So on that first day of 2013 as I looked at that clock tick, tick, tick I realized that I didn't want to burn through anymore of the precious 32% of my life that I had left. That sometimes bold action is called for. So as time flowed from slow-motion introspection into real time decision-making I realized I had arrived at my answer. That I would be fearless or at least a little less hesitant. So I quit my job. I sent an email to my boss and resigned.

And then it was gone. The fear. Like the fleeting tick of that New Year's clock, that tiny moment that left me spent and renewed. The fear was gone. The fear of being forgotten, the fear of my mother's disease, the fear of not having a purpose. The fear that I would be an outlier forever. I had finally found my audacity and autonomy. It had arrived without warning and fanfare. No garish lights no trumps booming on high. It just became a part of me. Even though I may be closer to the end than the beginning its not the position you finish in when you cross the line, but that your life had some meaning between those two points. In my short story Satan by Starlight the narrator is cleaning out his dead uncle's house when he comes across a set of old encyclopedias from 1972. This made him think about life's ponderous meaning.

Like the pretty picture of Kelly, Grace Patricia, Princess of Monica looking up at me with (1929- ) beside her name. Enclosed in those parentheses she was still alive when this book was printed. Now that equation was complete. It would read (1929-1988). And the sum of who she was would forever rest in between those curved marks. ...Looking at the now dead Princess Grace and seeing the word keloid so close to her name seemed fitting. This book captured a moment in time and then it was frozen there like a keloid, which is a harmless swelling that usually occurs at the site of a cut. This book is like a keloid. As soon as it was printed it was obsolete. Even before the ink was dry and the pages were bound it was obsolete. Grace Kelly and her eventual death made that happen. And she would be placed away inside those parentheses and forgotten. Death being the ultimate balance of that math. Death is life’s completion.
It is ultimately left up to ourselves to determine what goes between those dates. What determines the magnificent and grace of that dash in the middle. We can fill it with misery and pain or we can change it into exception and fulfillment. So as I sit here on the first day of 2013 and I am going to embrace the future. To make that dash as grand as I know it can be. To live the life that I have now not some life of a distance longing or regret. To be there for my mother and my friends and those in need of a smile, a warm embrace. A thank you. To tell the stories I am destined to tell; be they mine or some one else's. That the remaining 32 percent will be ten times better than the first 68. That life truly can begin at 50! Or 48 in my case.